Defence force bypasses Cabinet and hastily deploys 135 instructors and support staff to train thousands of Congolese soldiers in restive region
Without proper Cabinet memorandums and publication in the Government Gazette, the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) has deployed about 135 instructors and support staff to train soldiers in the troubled southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
City Press stablemate Rapport understands that, although acting on the order from a higher authority, the army’s hasty deployment was done without putting a budget in place first. This meant that the army was forced to “borrow” R55 million for the soldiers’ rations and logistics. This will also have implications when it comes to paying for supplies for domestic and foreign deployments at some point in the next financial year.
The soldiers will not be used as part of the UN deployment in the DRC, Monusco, but as instructors for Mission Thebe to train at least 4 500 Congolese soldiers. In the past few years, small groups of South Africans have been used to train different groups of the Congolese defence force at Mura Military Base, Likasie, in the opposition-controlled Katanga region.
In terms of the department of defence’s instructions for the deployment of soldiers abroad, President Jacob Zuma, as commander in chief of the defence force, was supposed to announce the deployment through the Government Gazette and to inform Parliament accordingly. This would then be confirmed by a Cabinet memorandum. However, no record of such notification could be traced during the past week.
According to informed sources in the defence force, the absence of such authorisation has implications for the deployed soldiers if they are harmed. It also means that their life insurance may not be paid out because this was technically an “illegal” mission.
It is not known which battalions of the Congolese will be trained and whether this step can in fact be seen as an attempt by President Joseph Kabila to strengthen his military might in the run-up to elections later this year.
Kabila has been trying to negotiate to stay on as president. His term in office officially expires this year.
In the past, Mission Thebe had cost the SANDF about R60 million a year.
Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga said the defence force would not discuss the details of its cooperation agreements with other countries’ defence forces in the media.
According to documents examined by Rapport, an additional R185 million was suddenly requested for Thebe during a military budget discussion about a week ago.
A tent manufacturer in Johannesburg is hastily manufacturing and assembling an entire tent complex for the DRC operation, which will be transported to the DRC by truck. A whole convoy of new vehicles and other equipment are also being purchased in haste.
The soldiers, including 96 senior instructors, were transported to the DRC on a chartered flight about two weeks ago. They are being accommodated in guest houses and other facilities available in the area.
The mission is apparently in line with a tripartite agreement between South Africa, the DRC and Angola. The Angolans are also in the process of training a different platoon of Kabila’s soldiers.
According to Stephanie Wolters from the Institute for Security Studies, Likasie is a strategic landmark in the DRC because it is in the middle of the Copper Belt and near the Angolan border.
“To have a group of soldiers present in the area presumably sends a powerful message to the opposition in the area – especially since serious violence has flared up in the area in recent weeks. Katanga, and the fact that the local residents support Kabila’s opposition, is a thorn in Kabila’s side,” Wolters said.
According to military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman, the strategic location of Likasie makes a great deal of sense because it would prevent violence from flowing over the border into Zambia and Angola, and rather keep it confined to the DRC.
According to Mabanga, Likasie is a “suitable” area.
A memorandum of understanding between the DRC and South Africa necessitated the deployment of the soldiers.
According to DA defence spokesperson Kobus Marais, this additional and unplanned expenditure was unfortunate because the defence budget clearly showed that the defence force does not even have enough money for the soldiers who do border patrols.
“There have been rumours in the past that the defence force is being partly deployed in the DRC because influential South Africans have business interests in the Copper Belt. For the sake of the safety of our soldiers, we dare not become involved in the internal affairs of other countries on an ad hoc basis,” Marais said.
Picture: Members of the SANDF during the Mandela Commemoration Medal Parade at the Waterkloof Airforce Base on December 7, 2014. Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)